The European Union’s Cultural Diplomacy

The coming European elections are inviting us to look at EU’s cultural diplomacy

April 26th, 2019
Elisa Vallette, News from Berlin
20190426_The European Union’s Cultural Diplomacy.jpg

Besides a soft power tool, the EU uses cultural diplomacy in its external relations to boost economic development, social reconciliation, and strengthen global peace.

First, the European Union believes that the promotion of culture abroad boosts economic development. Therefore, the EU supports the cultural sector in partners’ countries; cultural heritage as well as creative industries. For instance, the EU devoted 3.5 million euros to the “Silk Road Heritage Corridors in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran” program, in collaboration with UNESCO. This program preserves and promotes the cultural heritage in the participating countries to attract tourists. It also diversifies tourism products to provide visitors high-quality experiences along the Silk Road. The program also offers skills and capacity-building trainings, especially for youth and women, to create job and income opportunities for local communities in the cultural tourist sector. In addition to economic benefits, the program has positive social externalities. Indeed, the resulting exchange of knowledge promotes inter-cultural dialogue, reconciliation and reinforces social cohesion.

Then, the EU believes cultural diplomacy plays an important role in resolving issues related to migration, conflict prevention, and peacemaking. For instance, a report on Libya, stated that the community of arts and cultural activists is still quite small, therefore there is much space for new projects. Initiating cultural activities in arts but also sports could promote social cohesion and thus peace. While the lack of a shared sense of national identity is dividing the country along ethno-cultural lines, culture and education could be a solution to the identity crisis Libya faces. Culture and education are considered to be powerful tools to fight prejudices and radicalism and promote tolerance. The European national cultural institutes present in Libya are the British Council, the French Institute, and the Italian Cultural Institute. Some European embassies are also active bilaterally in culture and some European foundations have financed cultural projects. The EU funds media and cultural heritage projects, and is discussing the possibility of supporting cultural heritage conservation and restoration.

Beyond bilateral cultural cooperation, the EU, aware that the youth uses new communication technologies and social networks to create transnational communities of interests, is adapting its policies. These networking of cultures through new ways of dialogue and participation can promote diversity and tolerance of other cultures. Their flexible format and lack of institutionalization have introduced new ideas and working methods in international relations. Therefore, the EU needs to adapt its policies to these new transnational cultural practices.

While the benefits of EU’s cultural diplomacy are multiple, it also has a darker side with some risks. First, the EU’s cultural diplomacy promotes European values abroad, such as freedom of expression, democracy, LGBT rights, etc. However, the debate whether European values are universal remains controversial. Some countries affirm that EU’s conditions are incompatible with their own values and culture. Therefore, countries not respecting the conditions imposed by the EU do not receive aid and are excluded from EU’s cultural diplomacy policies.

Even in countries accepting EU’s conditions, the intercultural dialogue can seem unequaled, with a powerful EU imposing its values. However, the EU is shifting toward more equal partnerships in which the two sides have an equal voice and active role for cultural cooperation.

The practice of listening, mutual understanding and, learning from each other, are encouraged.

Despite good intentions, the EU’s cultural diplomacy is still disparate. To tackle this issue, the EU in March 2016 launched the Cultural Diplomacy Platform (link: which aims at providing expertise, recommendations and advice to the relevant EU institutions regarding the role of culture in external relations. The online platform gathers diverse stakeholders – governments, regions, cities, cultural institutes, civil society organizations, artists, scientists, performers, individuals and many more – of the European external cultural relations. The main objectives of this platform are to 1) support the further development of cultural diplomacy policies, activities, methodologies, tools and training programs, within the broader framework of EU Public Diplomacy; 2) assist in policy dialogues and advise on cultural diplomacy issues; 3) Strengthen communities/networks of cultural diplomacy practitioners.

The European Union uses cultural diplomacy to boost economic development, social reconciliation and peace abroad. However, this soft power tool still need to be improved in order to have meaningful equal cultural cooperation. Hopefully, reinforcing EU’s cultural diplomacy will be part of the debates during the campaign for the coming European elections.


News from Berlin